British Virgin Islands representatives woo Miami professionals
By Samantha Joseph
British Virgin Islands' business leaders and government officials see Greater Miami as a hot spot for discussing changes to their country's financial laws and new services.
The idea is to sell Miami accountants, corporate lawyers, bankers and financial advisers on the benefits of doing business offshore in the hopes that they would recommend the services of the British Virgin Islands to their clients. This week, a delegation from the British Virgin Islands visited Miami as part of the country's yearlong promotional tour of the world's major financial centers.
The message from the Caribbean nation about 60 miles east of Puerto Rico: "We're open for business," said Finance Minister and Deputy Chief Minister Ronnie W. Skelton.
The group stopped in Miami to meet with about 200 local professionals who do business in Latin America
"Miami is a one-stop shop," said Tim Harrison, a spokesman for the delegation.
The British Virgin Islands is the latest offshore financial center moving to capitalize on South Florida's close ties to the rest of the hemisphere. In recent years, delegations from the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas, both major centers, have brought similar messages to local professionals who serve international clients.
"We feel that we must do Miami in order to capture the Latin American market," Mr. Skelton said.
Since October 2003, the British Virgin Islands delegation has traveled to London, Hong Kong, New York and Singapore to woo individuals and corporations.
"Every event that we've had around the world has led to real business connections and real mutual benefits," said Mr. Harrison. "We fully expect the same thing to happen in Miami."
For many outside the world's financial sector, the British Virgin Islands seems little more than a sleepy destination, perhaps known for sailing and beaches.
Just more than 22,000 people make their home on 16 of the 36 islands of the British territory east of Puerto Rico and depend largely on tourism, which accounts for about 45% of the gross domestic product.
What is less widely known, though, is the country's reputation for attracting wealthy US, Latin American and Asian investors who want to manage their assets overseas.
Since it created its International Business Companies Act 20 years ago, the British Virgin Islands has attracted about 500,000 foreign companies to its offshore registry.
The country is the fourth-largest offshore center for captive insurance, a financial service that allows businesses to create their own insurance funds to protect against liabilities, and one of the fastest-growing markets for mutual funds.
But the growth has not come without a staunch international backlash.
The British Virgin Islands, like other offshore financial centers, has faced heavy criticism in recent years from multinational groups who say the tax systems create unfair competition for the rest of world and cause steep revenue losses for foreign governments.
International groups like the European Union and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development pressured these international centers - sometimes with threats of economic sanctions - to alter their practices towards foreign investors and businesses.
But officials from the British Virgin Islands say the criticism has served to strengthen their financial services.
"Despite all the international regulations targeted to the financial services jurisdictions, the growth is still there," said Finance Minister Ronnie Skelton. "What the initiatives have done is make these jurisdictions more attractive, as they've become better regulated. Investors feel they are well-protected when they put their money offshore."
Mr. Skelton was part of delegation of private and public sector representatives in Miami this week to meet with local financial services professionals to discuss regulatory changes and advertise new products.
The group intended Miami professionals to recommend British Virgin Island financial services to their Latin American customers.
A key product was the VISTA trust, a product named for the Virgin Islands Special Trusts Act, which circumvents normal trust practice and allows owners to make decisions without the approval of trustees.
"A businessman, whether in Mexico or Brazil, Argentina, can make business decisions, while still enjoying the benefit of the trust for long-term estate planning purposes," said Humphry Leue, chief operations officer of the Virgin Islands' International Finance Center. "You get the benefit of the trust, while at the same time, as a business man, you can continue to make business decisions without worrying about the trustees intervening. That, we feel, is one the things that the Latin American community has been looking for - the idea that you do not lose control over your business."
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